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Success has many measurements, but the
universal scale is wealth. Yet, wealth seems to
escape a simple definition—either in the mind’s
eye or on the balance sheet.
- How do you define wealth?
- Has your definition changed over the years?
- Is wealth only a matter of money?
- How do you keep score?
- When will you have "enough"—if ever?
If you see wealth as a financial target, it’s a number that probably changed over the years—refl ecting not only inflation, but also your own achievements. If you originally wanted to be a millionaire, you may have already reached that goal. After all, until recently the booming stock and real estate markets easily helped lift youthful dreams of becoming a millionaire into reality.
When you achieve a level of success, your dreams and goals have a way of expanding. Reach one milestone, and you’re ready for another. That original $1 million goal may have long ago moved to $10 million, or even higher.
Now that there are more than 400 billionaires in the United States (or at least there were at last count—in October 2008), you might not be willing to settle for mere millions!
Money has a way of coming—and going. A reality check of your investment performance over the past year might prove that point. If it were as easy to keep millions, as well as create them, the task might not be so highly motivating!
There’s nothing like an economic slowdown and a bear market to bring money goals into perspective. In fact, if money is your only definition of wealth, you’d better fasten your seatbelt. This rough ride is not over in either the economy or the investment markets.
I’ll never forget a billionaire musing to me about the value added by his latest acquisition. He said: “Hell, it could be lollipops. The dollars are just for the counting.” Already having more money than he could spend or enjoy, the wealth-building process was just a way of measuring his stake in the game, his performance against his competitors.
"There's more to wealth than keeping score by counting financial assets."
Much as weight lifters want to press more pounds or swimmers stretch to break world records by milliseconds, those who compete in the world of business and investments strive to add zeros to their balance sheets.
It’s a race that starts early, and for some, a race that never ends. Most recently, the focus has been on youthful accumulation of wealth. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are under 40 and each is worth more than $18 billion. They’re still working at it—an inspiration to countless entrepreneurs.
But is the accumulation of wealth ever finished? Few billionaires throw in the towel and quit. Sure, Bill Gates is devoting his life to being charitable, but he’s still deeply committed to the continued growth of Microsoft.
Rupert Murdoch, approaching 80, continues to expand his media empire, though Forbes estimated his net worth at $8.3 billion in 2008. Kirk Kerkorian, 91, is ranked No. 41 on the list of global billionaires with an estimated $16 billion net worth. Last year he lost billions on his shares of Ford and MGM. But he’s still in the game as Las Vegas’ largest casino owner by room count. Or by lollipops!
There’s more to wealth than keeping score by counting financial assets. Any one of these wealthy people would trade their wealth for good health. Just ask billionaire Mike Milken, who has famously invested his fortune to fi nd a cure for prostate cancer, from which he suffered.
Obviously, not all your wealth is in the form of countable assets. For some, it’s fame. For others, it’s family. John Travolta would surely trade his fame and fortune if he could have saved the life of his teenage son.
After a certain point, some find their wealth becomes merely a tool to be used on behalf of others. They turn to global projects like curing disease or feeding starving children in Third World countries. Warren Buffett joined Bill Gates in his global philanthropic endeavors. Oprah has endowed a school in Africa and countless projects in America.
The one thing money cannot buy is time. That’s a humbling thought. Which is the most precious asset: time or money? Fortunately, life doesn’t require us to make a decision for one or the other—only to balance them wisely.
In the past year, many wealthy people have come in for a rude shock. Real estate and stock market values collapsed. Financial institutions like Lehman and Bear Stearns have wiped out fortunes that were once taken for granted. Bernard Madoff is accused of stealing the assets of charitable foundations and retirees who considered themselves wealthy, or at least comfortable.
The wealth is gone, the people remain. For many, it’s too late to start over. Others are too dispirited to attempt the climb again. Yet, one way or another all will survive. And in the losing of wealth comes greater perspective. The lessons that cost the most, teach the most. Wealth is tough to achieve and even more difficult to maintain.
Human nature teaches that we will continue to strive for success, for wealth, for accomplishment. In that regard, today’s economic problems create the opportunities for tomorrow’s wealth creation.
Americans are fortunate to live in a free-enterprise system that promises—and almost always provides—equality of opportunity. But America has never guaranteed equal results. That is the definition of socialism, a system that has been tested to death around the world.
American success stories are motivated by aspiration, not by guilt. It’s not our style to play the politics of envy, attempting to take away all the rewards of success. Instead, we’re inspired by the achievements of others. Successful people become role models for others. That is perhaps America’s greatest gift—the ability to inspire and offer hope for others within a system that rewards creativity.
So look forward, not back, in your quest for wealth. And be sure to give yourself broad-enough definitions of success and wealth to recognize your accomplishments—as well as the time to appreciate them.